Markowa

Baptism of Blood

In Long Read by Sandro F. Piedrahita

Death appeared in the town of Markowa in March of 1942, and Aleksander and Julia both saw her at the same time. From a distance, she looked like a beautiful woman, a lovely Aryan maiden, but the closer she came to them the uglier and uglier she became, until at the end she was a decrepit crone dressed in black, with bleeding pustules on her face, warts as big as eggs on her arms and neck and a crown of white hair upon her head. Aleksander told his wife not to look at her. Julia was pregnant, and he feared the baby might be born disfigured if his wife spent any length of time looking at Death. Julia averted her eyes so she wouldn’t see the old crone, but she couldn’t avoid looking at Death, for Death was all about them.

The Nazis had rounded up all the Jews in the village and congregated them in the town’s central plaza. Many Poles, worried about their own fates, had turned in the luckless Jews, and the Nazis soon ordered all of the citizens of Markowa to convene in the town square to witness the execution and learn a lesson. The Poles couldn’t fail to realize that among the hated Jews being killed, there were also a dozen Catholics being brought to their deaths for secretly hiding Jews in their own homes. Aleksander insisted that his wife not look at what was happening, but she could not avoid hearing the cries of the condemned or the gunshots as the victims were shot in the back of the head before their cadavers were thrown into a common trench. Among those killed were a young Catholic couple and their two minor children whose wailing made Julia shiver. Their crime was having concealed a six-year-old Jewish boy – one of their children’s schoolmates – in the cellar of their home. Another non-Jew murdered was a Nazi officer who had allowed a Jewish woman to hide in his house in exchange for sexual favors. The whole purpose of the public execution was to drive in the fact that those who harbored Jews were gambling with their lives. And the Nazis knew their message was understood loud and clear by the frightened Poles.

After the execution, the crowds dispersed, and Aleksander and Julia began to make their way toward their house. They had left the kids at home alone with their older sister and were worried. Sure, Hanna was already sixteen and could probably take care of her younger siblings, but there were seven of them, and her parents weren’t sure that Hanna could manage. Julia had given birth to Hanna within a year of her marriage to Aleksander, but most of the others had been born in more recent years: Ada, who was eleven; Angelica, who was eight; Emilia, who was seven; Eda, who was five; Ina, who was three; and the twins, Antoni and Franciszek, who were both only a year old. At the age of thirty-five, Julia had become pregnant again, and they were expecting the birth of another child in seven months. They had already decided to christen the child Bogdi if he was a boy and Kristina if she was a girl. Bogdi means “given by God” in Polish and Kristina means “anointed Christian.”

As they were walking towards their home, Julia saw something which startled her. Death was walking right behind them. She looked like a young woman again, the embodiment of what Adolf Hitler called Aryan beauty: golden hair, sparkling blue eyes, a strong and athletic figure. Julia told her husband to hurry, as she wanted to escape from Death, but even though they hastened their steps, Death was following them closely, growing older and older as she walked. By the time they reached the house, the old hag was only twenty paces behind them, and as soon as they entered, they heard her knocking at their door. Aleksander didn’t know what to do. At first, he decided to ignore her, but her knocks on the door became more insistent and the ancient woman began to wail.

“Alms for a beggar-woman!” she cried out. “I haven’t eaten in a century. Please give me some money so I can buy a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese.”

Aleksander timidly opened the door. Death was dressed in rags.

“Here,” he said. “Take a hundred franks and leave us in peace.”

“Peace?” echoed the hag. “Nobody in Poland will have peace in a very long time. I am being summoned everywhere, in the death camps at Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the streets where Jews and priests are hanged, at the front lines of the greatest war humanity has ever known. Nor will your own home be spared. You shall swallow the bitter pill, you will succumb to the enemy, you shall be baptized in blood.”

“Leave us alone!” Aleksander repeated. “I don’t want to hear your monstrous prophecies. We shall be protected by the Lord.”

“Nobody shall protect you from what is to come. I have been unleashed by mighty men, Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union, with millions of acolytes who have lost their conscience. Haven’t you heard what happened to the Poles at the Katyn Forest Massacre where over twenty thousand men were killed at the orders of Joseph Stalin? Have you forgotten about what Hitler did on Kristallnacht?”

“We’re God-fearing people. We shall pray to Our Lady of Czestochowa and rely on her aid and succor.”

“She can save your souls but not your bodies,” pronounced Death.

“Depart! Depart!” Aleksander screamed. “And never come this way again.”

“I come and go wherever I please, whenever I want. Haven’t you yet realized that I am ubiquitous? I shall knock on your door again.”

Then the hag was once again transformed into a beautiful woman before she bid adieu.

***

The following day, before dawn, someone knocked at the door of the Gajewskis’ home. Aleksander opened the door and recognized his former law partner Isaac Goldberg, with whom he had shared a small law practice in Sicut for over a decade.

“Isaac,” said Aleksander. “What are you doing here? I thought you had escaped Poland long ago.”

“I’ve been right here in Markowa, hiding in the house of Hans Botz. But after what happened yesterday, he demanded that my family immediately depart. Hans is afraid that if we’re discovered, he and his wife and children will be hanged.”

“In light of what happened yesterday,” responded Aleksander, “that is not a foolish fear.”

“Well, I’ve come to ask you for an immense favor. Will you hide me and my family in your home? It’s just the three boys, Baruch, Mechel and Joachim, as well as my daughter Ruth and her infant daughter Judith. My wife and my daughter’s husband have already died at the hands of the Gestapo. I’m not asking to stay with you for a long time. We have some jewelry we hope to use to bribe our way out of Poland.”

“That’s a very tall order, Isaac. I, too, have a family I don’t want to place in jeopardy. Wouldn’t it be possible for you and your children to obtain false documents and hide in plain sight?”

“There’s no way to obtain such documents in Markowa. Maybe if we were in Warsaw or Krakow, but not here. And if we venture outside, we shall be recognized. Everybody knows us and knows we are Jews. I don’t need to tell you what some of our fellow Poles are doing to the Jews among them. Many have turned in the Jews to the authorities and some have even killed the Jews themselves. There is a sort of paranoia now, with every Catholic Pole terrified that they will be associated with a Jew and executed without trial.”

“How old are your kids, Isaac? I remember them playing with my Hanna, but my recollection is that they were a little older.”

“Baruch is eighteen, Mechel sixteen, Joachim twelve and Ruth is twenty-two. They’re beautiful, beautiful children. We shall be forever indebted to you if you help us now. If you don’t, I don’t know what will become of us. I can’t think of anyone else who would take us in. And the Nazis will only be too happy to send us to our deaths. You saw what happened yesterday.”

“Let me pray on it, Isaac. And I’ll have to discuss it with Julia. I think of you almost as a brother, having worked so closely with you for over a decade at Gajewski and Goldberg. But I can’t tell you that I’m not afraid. If we’re caught, our fates are sealed. And I mostly worry about the kids. The Nazis have shown no reluctance to murder children.”

“Hide us just for a little while, Aleksander. We have enough to bribe our way out of Poland. And then hopefully make our way to America. The whole of Europe is a death camp for us Jews, even Italy and Greece.”

“Death is everywhere,” said Aleksander grimly. He did not mention the vision of the prior day to Isaac Goldberg. “If we agree to take you in, how will your family make its way here from Hans Botz’s home?”

“There is a policeman who has been helping us in exchange for money. His name is Wlodzimierz Kaluzniacki, and he will bring us here in the middle of the night. Don’t worry about that. If you agree to take us in, we won’t have any problem arriving safely to your home.”

“Well, let me talk it over with Julia. I must tell you that my initial inclination is to refuse. It’s simply too dangerous for the kids.”

“If you refuse, you shall be sending me and my children to our deaths. In the name of your Virgin of Czestochowa, I plead with you to help us. Please help us in the name of everything holy.”

That evening Aleksander had a long talk with Julia. He was surprised by her apparent nonchalance. He had imagined that she would balk at the idea of harboring five Jews in their home, but her response had been different.

“That man was like a brother to you for so many years. We spent countless weekends at his home. How could we as Catholics deny him safe haven? Sure, it’s dangerous, but isn’t that what the Christ requires of us? No man has greater love than the one who is willing to risk his life for his friends. Isaac Goldberg was certainly your friend.”

“You’re not afraid for our own children?” Aleksander asked.

“I am deathly afraid, but I don’t want to teach them the wrong lesson. I don’t want them to learn that one must cower in the face of evil. We must instill in them courage, faith and fortitude even at the peril of their lives. And we shall be protected by the Virgin of Czestochowa anyway. Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Do not be afraid. Just believe?’ The Jews are part of the human race, not cattle to be butchered. They are our brothers and sisters like so many others, the Spaniard and the African alike. A Christian cannot ignore this in good conscience."

“All right, so you’re giving me the green light?” asked Aleksander. “We shall hide them in the attic. But we must be extremely careful.”

The next day Aleksander made his way to the house of Hans Botz, where he met briefly with Isaac Goldberg.

“We have decided to take you in,” said Aleksander. “Pray that we are making the right decision.”

“You shall be called righteous among the nations,” responded Isaac. “You shall be hailed as saints by Catholic and Jew alike.”

***

When Isaac arrived at their hideout, he got the whole family together and announced that they would be moving to the home of the Gayewski family and that he intended to ask Wlodzimierz Kaluzniacki to drive them there in his police car the following night. Isaac’s sons cheered and hugged each other in tears. There were better days ahead, they cried. We shall not be at the mercy of the Nazis. But Ruth was pensive. After pausing to collect her thoughts, she objected to her father’s plan.

“It is folly,” she explained, “to have Kaluzniacki take us to the Gayewskis’ home. Nobody should know where we shall be hiding and certainly not Kaluzniacki. He’s not being generous. He’s made a business of extracting money and jewels from Jews living in clandestinity. And it is not I who say it but our mother Yolanda who has inhabited me. You know full well that our mother has occupied my body for a while, a powerful ibbur who has returned to earth to finish some unfinished business – the protection of her family from the Nazis – and we should listen to her counsel. Ibbur is the most benevolent form of possession and happens only when the righteous soul of a deceased impregnates the soul of the living. And that is what has happened with me. As with other ibburs, our mother wishes to perform a task and a mitzvah that can only be accomplished by the live person she inhabits. I can say it again and again. Our mother Yolanda is a righteous and powerful tzadika bent on rescuing our family from the darkness of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, embodiments of the dybbuk.

“That fellow Kaluzniacki whom you so distrust,” responded Isaac, “has known we were hiding in the house of Hans Botz for at least the last eighteen months, some would say at the peril of his life. Despite being a policeman, he has never reported us to his superiors and on more than one occasion has warned us of inspections of the Botz home by the Blue Police. How do you know your thoughts come from an ibbur and not from your own mind?”

“I hear locutions from the Nefesh of our mother constantly, from her soul itself. Hers is a constant presence. I see her in my dreams. I feel the comfort of her love. I know when she wants us to act. Haven’t you seen the miracles she has wrought?”

“You’re talking about the earthquake,” responded Isaac, “when we were on the verge of being caught and the earth rumbled causing our enemies to become distracted while searching for us in Botz’s home.”

“That and more,” Ruth replied. “It was in a dream from our mother that I was told we would be welcome in Botz’s house. And I haven’t told you this, but last night I dreamt that your old law partner would open his doors to our family and that he was a man of a great nobility of spirit. But never have I received a locution telling me that Kaluzniacki will be loyal to the end. Quite the contrary. Yolanda wants us to be very wary of his aid. You must believe I am the living host of a great ibbur who wishes to continue to do good on earth. With Yolanda’s help from the afterlife, we can achieve the impossible – an end to the final solution, for example, or finding safe haven in America. Only when the task is accomplished will my mother leave.”

“If Kaluzniacki doesn’t take us, how do you propose we get to the Gajewskis’ home?” Isaac asked his daughter. “We would be putting Aleksander in greater peril if we asked him to transport us himself. Kaluzniacki, on the other hand, is a policeman who could drive us to the Gajewskis’ house in safety. We certainly can’t walk there, lest someone sees us.”

“Kaluzniacki only helps you because you pay him handsomely for his succor. Once the money dries up, so will the aid. My mother herself has told me in my dreams that at some point Kaluzniacki will demand all the jewels you are keeping in order to bribe your way out of Poland.”

“I just don’t see that happening, irrespective of what the ibbur of your mother told you. And truly we don’t have a choice. It’s either Kaluzniacki taking us or facing our perils alone on the streets of Markowa.”

“You shall come to regret this decision,” Ruth replied. “My mother’s ibbur wouldn’t lead us astray.”

“I think you’re taking this kabalistic nonsense a bit too far. I am a devoted Jew but don’t believe in ibburs or dybbuks. Reform Judaism doesn’t force us to lend credence to such notions.”

“So, you think I’m insane?” demanded Ruth. “You simply don’t believe our mother is trying to help us from beyond the grave. But I believe every Jewish family in these wretched times is protected by an ibbur. Indeed, some are aided by magnificent ibburs – Moses, Abraham, Maimonides and many prophets. It is the ibburs who will prevent the Nazis from obliterating the Jewish race. And Adolf Hitler is inhabited too, not by a benevolent ibbur but by a clinging demonic dybbuk. No ordinary human being would send millions of children to their deaths. Hitler does it because he is possessed. The dybbuk ultimately tries to harm the soul of its host and in the Fuhrer’s case the dybbuk is clearly leading him to perdition. At the same time, Hitler’s dybbuk is trying to destroy the Jewish people. Don’t forget certain ghosts in Jewish tradition are often described as spirits who habitually kill children in their cradles. The demon Lilith kills women in childbirth and steals their babies or murders them in their cribs.”

“So, you believe Hitler is inhabited by the soul-cleaving parasitic specter of an evil man for malevolent purposes? On that final point you may have my agreement. What a monstrous man that ghost must have been to lead Hitler to such evil. But I must reiterate that Kaluzniacki is our only hope, whether or not dybbuks and ibburs actually exist. He’s the only man that can help us at this moment.”

“So be it,” said Ruth. “I won’t push this argument any further. Ignore my mother’s messages at your peril. Don’t forget the ibbur helps its host make the best choices available to achieve her goals. I hope a golem soon appears – real or metaphorical – to make Hitler be defeated just like a golem protected the Jewish people from persecution in Prague during the time of Rabbi Judah Loew.”

***

The Goldbergs appeared at the house of the Gajewski’s around five o’clock in the morning, bringing with them only a single valise with their belongings and a small box containing jewelry. Upon arriving, before entering the home, Kaluzniacki pulled Isaac to the side and demanded two-thousand marks as payment for the transportation.

“Two-thousand marks?” asked Isaac. “That’s more than most people earn in a month.”

“They don’t risk their life, their liberty to do it,” responded Kaluzniacki. “And just because you’re now living in a new home doesn’t mean you stop paying me my monthly stipend. If anything, I should double the amount. After the mass execution last week, it has become that much more dangerous to be helping Jews. Don’t forget what Decree 30 says, which I have memorized given its importance: ‘Not only Jews who fail to appear after being summoned to a work camp will be punished with death, but the same penalty applies to anyone who knowingly provides refuge to such Jews. This includes not only the providing of a night's lodging and food, but also any other aid, such as transporting them in vehicles of any sort, through the purchase of Jewish valuables, and other means. Whoever provided or currently provides aid to a Jew will not be prosecuted if it is reported immediately to the nearest police station.’”

As he spoke, Kaluzniacki grimly smiled.

“I don’t have that much money, Officer Kaluzniacki,” Isaac said. “I can’t be paying you any more than what we’ve previously arranged.”

“I know you have jewelry with you, Isaac. Don’t trifle with me. Give me the jewels so I can sell them, and we can settle our accounts.”

“That was my wife Yolanda’s jewelry. We intend to use it to bribe our way out of Poland. Without it, escape is impossible.”

“Before you can leave Poland, you have to survive in Poland. And I am helping you to do so. Don’t cross me, Goldberg.”

“I’ll try to see what I can do. Maybe ask Aleksander to sell one of Yolanda’s rings, the one studded with a diamond.”

“There we go,” exclaimed Kaluzniacki. “I knew you were good for it. And don’t worry about your new hideout. Your secret shall forever be a secret.”

Once the Goldbergs entered the home, Aleksander and Julia were patiently waiting for them, somewhat apprehensive because they feared the Goldbergs could have been detained along the way. All of the children were asleep except the doe-eyed Hanna.

“These are my boys,” announced Isaac as he arrived. “Baruch, Mechel, and Joachim. And this is my daughter Ruth and her baby girl Judith. I know that you’re now busy tanning hides since our law practice was dissolved. My three boys are strong and hard-working and can help you. There is no danger of their being caught in your tannery. May that be a sign of our undying gratitude to your family and a small compensation for your hospitality and courage. And let me give you this as well.”

Isaac handed a bracelet of emeralds to Aleksander.

“I’m giving you this in lieu of room and board,” said Isaac. “It once belonged to my beloved Yolanda.”

“That won’t be necessary,” responded Aleksander. “You keep that so you can use it to escape the country. There are reports of many Jews who’ve escaped from Europe after using jewelry to bribe the black-uniformed SS. And perhaps you can sell the jewelry to obtain funds to purchase false identification papers as well as for transportation.”

“Are you still practicing law in any way? If you are, I can help you with the briefs.”

“As a matter of fact, I am, although there’s only so much the Germans allow the Poles to do in terms of handling the administration of justice in our own country. I’ll see that I get you a typewriter. That reminds me I need to discuss certain matters with you and your whole family.”

The Goldbergs sat in rapt attention as Aleksander explained the ground rules that would apply to them during their stay in his home.

“I’ll soon show you the attic,” he said. “It’s large enough for the five of you, but unfortunately, I don’t have mattresses for you. You’ll have to sleep on the floor. It’s simply too risky to go into town and buy five new mattresses. The Gestapo has a thousand eyes and ears and buying so many mattresses all at once would raise some eyebrows. And the same applies to food. I can’t be buying food for two families. We’re going to have to make do with less food than what would be ideal. But again, I don’t want to alert anyone’s suspicions. This brings me to the issue of the trash. More than one Jewish family in clandestinity has been caught because of the large amount of trash generated by the home. If we double the amount of trash placed at our door each Wednesday, the Gestapo may figure out that there are two families living in this house instead of one. So, you’ll have to keep all of your trash in a large container in the attic. At some point, I’ll bury it in the yard. And one last point. At no time, even if you are dying, even if you are trembling, are you to venture outside into the street.”

Then Isaac’s oldest son Baruch intervened.

“Can I ask a question?”

“By all means,” said Aleksander.

“Are we supposed to spend all day in the attic? Or can we use the house during the day?’

“I don’t think,” said Aleksander, “that you should spend all day in the attic. For one thing, it doesn’t have a toilet. You’re free to come and go inside the house, but you must always be vigilant. If someone knocks on the door, you must immediately repair to the attic. And I suggest you take turns waiting at the window in the living room which overlooks the street. If a military truck or police vehicle is seen approaching, you must hide that very moment.”

“The ibbur will protect us,” said Ruth.

“And we shall be protected by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary of Czestochowa,” added Julia. “The Black Madonna has already shown her vast powers over Hitler. That monster ordered all religious pilgrimages in Poland to be stopped under pain of death, but the pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Czestochowa have not ceased. Millions have defied the Nazis and visited her shrine after the German occupation of the country. The Queen of Poland continues to protect her children and to receive them with open arms at Jasna Gora. We should pray that Mary deliver us from every evil, and she surely will.”

“You’re not sure of that,” said Baruch. “Nobody can be sure. Nor can we count on help from the ibbur.”

***

Hanna guided the Goldberg family to the attic. To enter it, she had to pull on a string which made a retractable ladder appear. Then she started to walk up the steps with Baruch close behind her. He was the eldest of the Goldberg boys and the most handsome. Baruch had alabaster skin and jet-black hair, piercing brown eyes which betrayed a hidden intensity, a refusal to conform to his fate despite an intuition that he was fated for disaster. As he ascended the steps following Hanna, she slipped, lost her step and landed in Baruch’s arms. It had been so many months – more than a year – since the last time he had held a woman in his arms, and he felt a sudden frisson of desire. Hanna was young and lovely, blue-eyed and blonde-haired, despite being a Slav the very incarnation of the Aryan beauty so vaunted by Adolf Hitler. For an instant, Baruch had the delight of touching the woman’s flesh, the small of her back, her soft twin breasts. For her part, Hanna too was excited and disturbed. She had felt something – an indescribable pleasure – when she fell into Baruch’s strong, muscular arms. She was sure it was sinful, perhaps that which her mother called lust when she taught her daughter about the traps of the devil. As Baruch held her by the elbow to help her ascend the steps, Hanna’s face suddenly flushed hot and her face reddened in embarrassment.

The entire Goldberg family entered the attic with Hanna leading them and her father Aleksander close behind them. The attic was small, no larger than four meters by four meters, and the roof was only six feet from the floor. There were pillows on the ground along with down comforters brought by Aleksander on the previous night. He once again apologized for the conditions, knowing it was the dead of winter and the Goldbergs were going to feel uncomfortably cold in the tiny room without light or electricity. He promised them he would bring a kerosene lamp soon, but for the moment they would have to spend the night in utter darkness. As Aleksander was speaking, Baruch continued to look at Hanna with an expression which can only be described as passion. And he made no attempt to disguise it. When they locked their eyes together, it was as if he were undressing her in his mind and he were inviting her to bed. Aleksander thought he noticed something unbecoming in Baruch’s countenance and gave the young Jew a hard look. Subconsciously, Aleksander remembered ancient tropes about duplicitous Jews debauching Christian women. Alkeksander felt no particular animus toward the Jews, but such ideas were in the Zeitgeist.

From that day forward, Baruch became obsessed with Hanna. When he looked at her, Hanna averted her eyes, for she divined his intentions and was troubled by them. But Baruch knew that his passion was reciprocated. Night and day he thought about her, dreamed about her, but he knew their love was impossible. Not only was she a Christian and he a Jew, but their conditions allowed them not a shred of privacy. They could never be alone in a home where almost twenty people lived. So, he took advantage of small moments to delight in her presence, appeared behind her when she was washing the dishes, read a book of poems to her from Aleksander’s library, was bold enough to enter her room when she was knitting, never closing the door behind him since he knew it was verboten.

Hanna also thought about him. She had never known a man, but now she was given to thoughts of concupiscence which she did her utmost to avoid. She imagined herself and Baruch, alone in the attic, making love, and tried hard to think of something else. At night, she would wake up in a cold sweat, having seen the most sublime and terrifying visions. She delighted in merely touching his hand or in detecting the odor of his mouth when he approached her. She knew that when he read a love poem to her, he was thinking about her and that filled her soul with an unbridled joy. Baruch was so intelligent, so passionate, that he could easily seduce her, but the times were simply not propitious. The whole universe was conspiring against their love – the war, the occupation of Poland, the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

  One Sunday afternoon, they found each other, alone, in the kitchen. The entire Gayewski family had gone to Mass, Isaac was working on a legal brief in Aleksander’s study, Baruch’s brothers were kicking a soccer ball in the backyard, and Ruth, indisposed, had stayed in the attic sleeping. As Hanna was cooking a rack of lamb, Baruch approached her from behind and put his arms around her waist. She did not resist, and when she turned around, he gave her a furtive kiss. Hanna felt herself swooning, fainting, dying as she melted in his arms. He reached under her blouse and fondled her full white breasts. When he tried to put his hands under her skirt, however, she pushed him away, protesting that she was a Catholic and intended to remain a virgin until marriage. That was the moment when Isaac appeared with a furious look on his swarthy face. It was simply impossible for the couple to spend any time alone together.

“What are you doing, Baruch? You’re a grown man and are taking advantage of a minor. Worse than that, you’re betraying the family that has so generously taken us into their home. You’re a Jew, remember, and the girl is a Catholic. You cannot love each other. If you’re overtaken by lust, go masturbate in a corner, but never, ever kiss Hanna again. What are Julia and Aleksander going to say if they find out about this? They’ll throw us out into the streets and justifiably so.”

“I kissed him willingly,” responded Hanna. “And my parents will never find out about it. I love your son but realize that we cannot have a relationship. Our love is doomed like that of Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps in a different world we might consummate our love but not in this wretched universe.”

***

Death appeared at the Gayewski home around the same time Ruth was inhabited by a different ibbur. The one-year-old twins, Antoni and Franciszek, had both developed a very high fever and before the physician arrived to treat them, Death knocked at the door, an old crone dressed in black and with a disfigured face.

“The children will not survive the night,” she said. “I bring you black tidings. I told you I would return to your home and so it is.”

“Leave us alone,” cried Aleksander. “Go on your way. The Virgin of Czestochowa is protecting us.”

“I shall be coming back to Markowa again and again. There are murderous days ahead. Death will envelop you and surround you. The whole town shall be my own.”

“Don’t try to frighten me, you sharp-tongued harridan. If you’re trying to say my sons will die, you shall not defeat them for they are both baptized and will enter Heaven.”

“I’m warning you about your own life and that of your wife and all your other children. You can all avoid me if you turn over the Jewish family to the police.”

And then Death became a lovely blonde-haired maiden and said three words to the bewildered Aleksander.

“I promise you,” she said.

“Why would you care about the fate of the Jews I have sheltered in my home?” Aleksander asked desperately.

“Because the Fuhrer is my greatest ally, inhabited by a demon, and I wish to help him with his great struggle, his marvelous quest. Many other Catholic families have turned over their hidden Jews to the police. Some have killed the very Jews they were protecting because they were so frightened by me.”

“Well, go on your way. I shall never betray the Jews God has entrusted to my care.”

The truth, however, is that Aleksander took the words of Death seriously. Perhaps her words were an omen he should trust. After all, the Gestapo well knew that Jews were often hidden in the attics of Christian homes. If they arrived at his house, for whatever reason, they would perforce notice the string that led to the attic. Having found the existence of such a room, they would surely search it and find the five hidden Jews. Perhaps he should tell Isaac and his family to seek shelter elsewhere. Perhaps it was time to put the life of the Gayewski family ahead of that of the Goldbergs.

That night, as soon as the twins succumbed to their fevers, Aleksander told his wife Julia that he had been expecting their two sons to perish because Death had come to the house and warned him.

“And she prophesied,” added Aleksander, “that unless we throw the Goldbergs out of our home, the same fate awaits us.”

Julia looked at the face of her husband, and for the first time in her life, she saw fear.

“Death,” she said, “is an ally of the devil and surely her words cannot be trusted. Like her alter ego Hitler, she wants to see more and more Jews be killed. But even if her words were true, it would be foolish to follow Death’s directives. Our good deed in helping the Goldbergs shall be repaid in spades in Heaven. Were we to abandon our Jews, on the other hand, we would have to explain our act of cowardice and treachery to the Father during the Last Judgment.”

“Well, all right,” said Aleksander.

He always followed his wife’s advice to the letter. Despite his efforts, however, the words of Death became an obsession to him during the ensuing months, especially after the reappearance of the twins who came back to warn him of impending peril.

At first, nobody realized the strange happenings in the house were the works of the ghosts of Antoni and Franciszek, although the clairvoyant Ruth soon figured it out. A box of groceries suddenly appeared at the front of the house each day. Sweet music with no known provenance began to fill the house at night. The image of the black Madonna kept in the living room appeared without its customary scars. Ruth advised Aleksander that the boys had returned to become ibburs and help all of the residents of the house. She told him that before they could inhabit a soul, it was necessary for the person to make it known that the spiritual impregnation was desired. But neither Aleksander nor Julia easily accepted the advice, for they thought it was in manifest contradiction of their Catholic faith. Hanna, on the other hand, immediately became intrigued. She spoke at length with Ruth about the question of ibburs, and at some point, Ruth confided that she had been possessed by another benevolent ibbur, that of the Biblical Ruth, the epitome of loving kindness. Ruth also confessed that the directives of her namesake were extreme.

“The Biblical Ruth appeared to me in a dream,” said Ruth Goldberg, “and asked me if I would be her host. I told her that I would want nothing better, and she soon impregnated my spirit. She told me that hiding in an attic is not what I should be doing. Instead, she said, I should join the Polish resistance. Do you realize it has more than a hundred thousand members? And that there are Jewish women among them?”

“I didn’t know that,” responded Hanna.

 “So, I have decided to enlist with the military arm of the Polish Underground State. I had no idea where to find them, what to do for them, whether they even accepted women in their cadres, but my ibbur filled me with such knowledge. Now I know I shall disrupt German supply lines and engage in targeted assassinations of Nazi officers condemned to death by underground Polish Special Courts. I shall be engaged in collecting intelligence to be provided to the Polish government-in-exile located in London. I shall buy a carbine and shoot the enemy with my own hands.”

“Are you prepared to kill the Germans?” asked Hanna.

 “Yes, I shall seduce Gestapo men before I kill them. And my ibbur Ruth has told me that at some point I shall help the Jews’ uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. I spoke on the telephone with Police Resistance leader Witold Pilecki – sending him a letter with a return address would be too risky – and he has agreed to send one of the rebels to pick me up in a fortnight and take me to a hiding place for training in sabotage operations. The die is cast, my friend.”

“What about your little daughter? Have you told your father?”

“I haven’t told him since I know his initial instinct will be to thwart my plans. As far as little Judith, I can’t take her with me. I was hoping you would take care of her while I’m away.”

“Surely, surely,” responded Hanna. “Now tell me what I must do for my soul to be inhabited by the ibburs of my baby brothers.”

“Just speak to them before you sleep as if you were saying a prayer. I don’t know why your parents are so resistant to the idea. After all, you Catholics believe you can communicate not only with the saints but also with deceased relatives in Heaven.”

“Is an ibbur an angel?” asked Hanna.

 “Think of an ibbur as a Heavenly soul who wants to give you guidance and won’t let you face danger alone. The process isn’t a reincarnation but a temporary impregnation, a sort of incubation. In fact, the literal meaning of the Hebrew word ‘ibbur’ is impregnation. Just like a woman carries her child in the womb for a short period during pregnancy, thus does the ibbur live in the host soul for a short time. It’s explained in the Zohar that it occurs during hard times when the souls of the dead will join yours to defend you from your enemies. The impregnated souls of your ibbur brothers Antoni and Franciszek will not substitute for your own soul but will be like visitors who will leave after their purposes are accomplished. Other ibburs appear to rectify past mistakes in their own lives, but that obviously wouldn’t apply to Antoni and Franciszek, since they both perished as infants.”

In the night, Hanna was filled by the souls of her two younger brothers seeking to protect her. Hanna wondered whether the two benevolent ibburs were more powerful than the evil dybbuk who possessed Adolf Hitler.

***

To Hanna’s great surprise, the initial aid provided to her by her ibburs was to help her find a way to meet with Baruch in private at least once a week. In one of their initial locutions, the twin ibburs told her that true love comes so seldom in life that when one finds an opportunity to love, it should not be wasted.

There was an old shed in the backyard of the Gayewski home where Hanna and Baruch went for their secret rendezvous each Sunday while Hanna’s family attended Mass and Isaac was busy in the study. The ibburs of Antoni and Franciszek told the lovers at what time they should enter the shed and when to leave it. If Isaac was entering the backyard, the ibburs immediately alerted the couple. As soon as the man approached the garden, the two dead brothers would make the sound of a whistle and Baruch and Hanna would immediately leave the shed. Of course, this could not happen without the complicity of Baruch’s two brothers, but both Mechel and Joachim gladly protected the couple from being detected by their old man.

The old shed was small and crowded with tools and equipment, but there was enough space for Baruch and Hanna to cavort with each other in peace. Hanna always told her parents she did not attend Mass with them at noon because she preferred to attend services early in the morning and because she did not want to take Ruth’s daughter to church as her cries would interrupt the praying faithful. So, as far as the Gayewskis were concerned, they suspected nothing. Isaac was another story – he had already caught the couple in flagrante delicto and was wary of his eldest son’s intentions – but the ibburs followed his every step and the lovers were never caught by him again. Truth be told, they did not consummate their love during those first few months of passion, for both desperately wanted to avoid a pregnancy, not only for the obvious reasons but also because they felt it would be a crime to bring a child into such a wretched world. Still, they basked in each other’s beauty, and Hanna thanked her good ibburs profusely for providing them with such an opportunity.

“All I want,” she told them, “is a little tenderness.”

At some point, Baruch told Hanna that he wanted to join his sister in battle as part of the Polish Resistance. She reminded Baruch that her sister had only left under the prodding of her ibbur, the Biblical Ruth, but that the ibburs of Antony and Franciscek had not mentioned anything about Baruch going to war.

“They’re your ibburs, not mine,” said Baruch. “I don’t think they have much business telling me what to do.”

“Let me pray about it,” said Hanna. “I have many Heavenly allies, not only the souls of my brothers but also the Virgin of Czestochowa. I shall ask them if it’s time for you to join the Resistance. You should listen to what they say.”

It all came to Hanna in a dream. She saw the image of her two deceased brothers, but this time they were winged cherubim surrounding the virginal Black Madonna with the baby Jesus in her arms.

“Your beloved may or may not survive this black period in European history,” said a celestial voice, “but now is not the time to join in battle for it will only hasten his demise. At some point, when his brother Jews take up arms against the Nazi monster in the Warsaw Ghetto, it may be the time for him to act assuming he is still alive. Whether he will survive that act of resistance or not is not for me to say at this given moment, for his future is uncertain and still has not been written. But if he perishes while fighting with the Resistance at this moment, he shall not be able to participate in the uprising at the Warsaw Ghetto. His duty is to have patience for patience attains all. He will not have to wait long. The uprising will happen not long after the birth of your mother’s daughter.”

When Hanna told Baruch what she had dreamed, his first instinct was to doubt.

“I don’t believe in the Black Maddona. Remember that I’m a Jew. And all this business about the Jews taking up arms against the Germans at the Warsaw Ghetto is speculative at best. Most of the Jews have been so pliant with the Nazis that I doubt they will ever rise up in massive numbers. Look at what happened recently in the Warsaw Ghetto. Just last summer more than a quarter million Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka where they were swiftly murdered. And yet the Jews continued to obey. How do I know this? Bad news gets around.”

“Don’t forget,” responded Hanna, “that your sister’s ibbur told her exactly the same thing, that the Jews will violently revolt. And your sister’s ibbur is none other than Ruth the Jewish heroine. At some point there will be an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Of that you can be assured. And my ibburs tell me it shall happen sooner than you think. Once the Jews act in defiance of the Nazis, Polish resistance groups shall join their efforts. That will be the moment for you to act. If you want to sacrifice your life, do it for something meaningful. My informants – my ibburs – tell me the Warsaw uprising will be one of the greatest incidents of Jewish history.”

“Unfortunately, my dear Hanna, I’m sure it will also be one of history’s greatest routs.”

***

One afternoon in December 1942, when Julia Gayewski was about to give birth, the Trouble began. It all started with creaking noises, mysterious knocks in the room where Antoni and Franciszek had once slept, and beneath the floor, the sound of inexplicable footsteps in the kitchen, the ringing of bells in the living room and groaning sounds everywhere. The family heard the noise of trembling beneath the beds, invisible cats fighting, the dragging of chains along the floor as well as the music of Jewish hymns and disembodied prayers to the Black Madonna. Soon the events became more frightening. The rumbling beneath the floor became strong enough to blow a mirror off a wall, overturn chairs and knock the books in Aleksander’s study off their shelves. The wooden table in the dining room split in two, and the entire house began to vibrate. Objects in the home soon started to levitate, and all the knives in the kitchen made a ceaseless, rattling sound like portents of evil. Crimson tears fell from the eyes of the Virgin of Czestochowa in the dining room and the words “Beware of death!” apparently written in blood were plastered on a wall in the bedroom of Julia and Aleksander. A small fire burnt in the attic, but Aleksander and Isaac were able to extinguish without much effort. Aleksander concluded that they were being beset by poltergeist bent on their destruction, but Hanna wasn’t so sure.

“These events are not meant to punish or terrorize us,” she said, “but to warn us. The souls of my little brothers have done this to frighten us out of our complacency. Dark days loom ahead, but it is not too late to prevent the worst.”

“So, you think it is a warning?” queried Aleksander. “What are they trying to warn us about?

“Don’t you see it’s obvious?” asked Hanna. “The Gestapo will soon be knocking at our doors, and we must find a new hiding place for the Goldberg family.”

“I don’t want to bring Death to your family,” said Isaac Goldberg. “I shall call Kaluzniacki and ask him to find another host family to protect us. He’s never failed me yet.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Hanna. “Ruth said her ibburs told her to be wary of Kaluzniacki.”

“What else can I do?” Irving lamented. “I realize it’s a risky choice, but we simply cannot stay with you any longer. You’ve been more than generous towards us, but the Gestapo will kill you if they discover you have given us refuge.”

“I don’t want you to do anything dangerous,” said Aleksander. “Maybe we can weather the storm together. I firmly believe that good is stronger than evil. Our Lady of Czestochowa will protect us. And if we must die, we shall all die together. We shall not cower in the face of those your daughter Ruth once called the incarnation of the dybbuk.”

“Let me get in touch with Kaluzniacki. He will do anything if I pay him the right price.”

The next day Kaluzniacki appeared in the Gayewski home, and he repaired to Aleksander’s study with Isaac.

“We need to find a new place to stay,” said Isaac. “We have come to the conclusion that we cannot stay here any longer.”

“And that’s a good conclusion,” said Kaluzniacki. “I don’t mind telling you that the Gayewskis are in the crosshairs of the Nazis. When Hans Botz was recently interrogated, he saved his life by telling our police officers where the Goldberg family has been hiding.’

“Can you take us tomorrow? What will be your price?”

“I want everything,” Kaluzniacki said nonchalantly. “We are talking of saving you and your entire family. And I shall be placing myself at great peril if I help you.”

“Everything,” echoed Isaac. “You drive a pretty hard bargain.”

“You can take it or leave it,” said Kaluzniacki. “Those jewels you hide will be worthless once you’re dead. You Jews place too much value on trinkets and money.”

“Can you guarantee us safe haven?”

“I provide safe haven for more than thirty Jewish families in Markowa,” responded Kaluzniacki.

“Well, all right, I’ll give you what I have. I’m afraid it’s a lot less expensive than you might think. Let us go into the backyard. The box of jewels is buried in the ground. Can you pick us up at six tomorrow? By then, it will already be dark.”

Soon Isaac found a shovel and began to dig. He found the small box exactly where he had placed it. There were several diamond rings as well as a necklace studded with rubies and emeralds. Isaac begged Kaluzniacki to let him keep at least a few of the jewels which his family needed to make their escape into America, but the omnivorous Kaluzniacki declined. It was sheer extortion, but Isaac had a sword of Damocles over his head. He simply could not refuse Kaluzniacki’s demands. On more than one occasion, Kaluzniacki had implied that he was willing to turn over Isaac and his family himself if Isaac failed to pay him his devil’s due.

As soon as he arrived at police quarters, Kaluzniacki made an announcement to his superiors.

“Hans Botz was right. A bunch of Jews are hiding in the home of Aleksander Gayewski.”

Kaluzniacki knew that he could no longer profit from them.

His superiors credited him with the capture of many Jews hiding in Christian homes, not knowing he had been extorting them for months.

***

The next day the poltergeist were relentless, trying to warn the two families of impending danger. But Isaac was sure that Kaluzniacki would aid them since he had given a fortune to the policeman. Isaac made short shrift of the advice given to him by Hanna, who told him the ibburs had let her know Kaluzniacki had appeared the previous night not to rescue but to doom. The windows trembled and shattered into little pieces of glass, small fires erupted everywhere, vases and other objects were furiously thrown against the walls, a rain of stones fell upon the attic, a boom of deafening decibels was heard. Hanna concluded the benevolent ghosts were desperate to open the eyes of Isaac and were angered by his stubborn blindness.

“What do the spirits have to do before you realize you have to change your plans immediately? The spirits of your wife, the dead twins, perhaps the souls of countless martyred Jews are trying to give you a message. Why won’t you heed it?”

“I for one,” said Baruch, “am going to hide in the shed in the back at six in the afternoon. I shall go nowhere together with Kaluzniacki. The insistence of the poltergeist can only mean one thing, that Kaluznicacki isn’t a friend but a foe. He could so easily turn us in.  Doesn’t anyone here have a gun?”

“I have a rifle in the shed,” replied Aleksander, “but unfortunately, I have no bullets. Do you really think it will come to that, that Kaluznicaki will betray us to the Gestapo?”

“I can’t think of any other reason for the ghosts to be so frenzied. And if Hanna’s ibburs are telling her not to trust Kaluzniacki, I see no reason to disbelieve them.”

“Well, there is nothing we can do at this point,” said Isaac. “Do you want us to walk out into the streets, where I shall be immediately recognized?”

“At least that way the Gayewskis will not be killed for hiding us. I must tell you that I love Hanna and the very idea of her martyrdom appalls me.”

“Do you really think it would be that easy to spare her?” asked Isaac. “Don’t you know the Nazis will torture us until we confess the name of the family that gave us refuge?”

“Well, I’ll repeat what I said before. Don’t expect me to leave with Kaluzniacki.”

“I shall go into the shed with you,” said Hanna. Given the desperate situation, she didn’t care if everyone found out about their relationship. “If the Gestapo arrive, they won’t just kill our Jews. They shall execute both families, at least the adults among us.”

Suddenly Julia made an announcement.

“I think my water’s broken,” she said in a calm voice. “Perhaps we should think of calling a midwife.”

“Oh, great!” cried out Aleksander. “What a situation we’re in, that what should be an occasion for joy just complicates our lives. We can’t call a midwife with the Jews still among us. You’re going to have to go through the process by yourself.”

“I shall tend to you,” said Hanna. “We shall welcome our little brother Bogdi or our sister Kristina together.”

“Absolutely not,” responded Julia. “You go hide in the shack in the fields as planned. This is not my first pregnancy, and I know exactly what to do. Your father will be helping me. At all events, my past experience tells me that after the water breaks, it may take more than twelve hours for labor to begin. By then, our Jews will be safely ensconced in another home, and we shall call a midwife.”

“You still believe they will find safety?” Hanna asked.

“If Kaluzniacki betrays them as you think, none of us will find safety. But don’t worry about me. Surely, they won’t kill a woman in the process of giving birth to a child. Nobody could be that wicked.”

“I wish that were so,” Isaac sadly opined. “But the Nazis are known for ripping a child from her mother’s womb. I wish I had never asked you to give us shelter. Now all we can do is pray that Kaluzniacki comes through and rescues us.”

“I shall take my younger children to my mother’s house,” said Aleksander. “The girls will be safe with their grandmother. I would go there myself, but if Kaluzniacki is a traitor and has turned us in, it won’t take too long for the Gestapo to find us anywhere in Markowa. At all events, I don’t think things are as dire as Hanna thinks. Maybe this fellow Kaluzniacki is an angel rather than a demon.”

Then he asked Hanna if he wanted him to take her to her grandmother’s house as well.

“No,” she responded. “I shall hide in the shed in the yard with Baruch.”

Then he turned to Isaac.

“Do you want me to take little Judith?”

“No,” said Isaac. “I’m still hoping for the best, no matter what is said or done by the ghosts. I want to keep our family together. I gave Kaluzniacki all my wife’s jewelry yesterday. I really have no reason to distrust him.”

Aleksander, Isaac, Mechel and Joachim waited patiently in the living room, awaiting Kaluzniacki’s arrival and at the same time fearing the arrival of the Gestapo. But when someone appeared at the door, it was neither Kaluzniacki nor the Gestapo. It was Death itself coming to remind Aleksander of her promise to him.

“I told you,” said the old crone, “that unless you turned in your Jewish guests, I would be knocking at your door. You ignored my counsel, and now it is too late to do anything about it. You can grit your teeth, but there is no way you can avoid Death’s arrival.”

The Gestapo arrived at seven, entering the house without knocking. They immediately forced the three Jews to kneel and shot them in the forehead. Then one of the Germans looked at his superior and asked, “What about this one?” as he pointed to the two-year-old Judith.

“Shoot her as well,” directed the Nazi commander. “Why waste money sending her to Treblinka or Auschwitz-Birkenau? She’s a Jew as well. Hasn’t the Fuhrer decreed that all Jews must be eliminated? Who cares about her age?”

The younger officer pointed his gun at Judith’s face and discharged his pistol.

“You get on your knees as well,” they said to Aleksander. “We should torture you all night before killing you, despicable Pole. Where are your wife and children? They too should be punished for their betrayal of the Aryan race.”

Suddenly they heard Julia moaning in her bedroom. She was in the throes of labor and couldn’t contain herself. Upon finding her, they shot her in the chest before they finished off Aleksander.

The child was born, baptized in blood, soon after the Gestapo left.

***

Thirty years later, Hanna and Ruth saw each other again for the first time since Ruth had left the Gayewski home to join the Polish resistance in 1942. Ruth had been living in Israel ever since the end of World War II, and Hanna was in the country to attend the ceremonies at Yad Vashem honoring her and her deceased parents as Righteous Among the Nations. Hanna had brought her son with her, named Baruch after his father. She had also brought her sister Kristina who had been born on the same day the massacre occurred at the home of the Gayewskis. Speaking about the young Baruch, Hanna said, “He was the product of a sin, but God can transform even our greatest sins into something beautiful.”

“I never knew my brother Baruch had any children,” Ruth said to Hanna. “The last time I saw him was while we were both fighting with the Jewish rebels during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He died courageously, blowing up a bomb on his own person in order to kill a platoon of Germans. I don’t think he knew at the time that you were pregnant.”

“It happened while we were hiding in the shed in the back of the house, expecting to soon be killed by the Gestapo. It was the first and only time we ever made love since he left my parents’ home immediately after the massacre. I never saw him again. I tried to find him after the war was over and was told of his death in the Warsaw Jewish ghetto.”

“Yes, it was through Baruch that I heard what happened to my father and my brothers, also to my little Judith.”

“In the end, despite that horror,” said Hanna, “love conquered over hatred, good prevailed over evil. On the same day our parents were murdered, Kristina was born, and Baruch was conceived. And eventually the dybbuk Hitler was defeated.”

Some twenty years later, Julia and Aleksander were both canonized for their heroic martyrdom.

About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.

Read more work by Sandro F. Piedrahita .

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